A few hours south of the Khawa Karpo, the sacred mountain that attract several thousands of pilgrims every year, the century old Catholic church of Cizhong (茨中天主教堂) seems out of place in this Tibetan Buddhist land of northern Yunnan province.
The journey from Deqin (德钦) to Cizhong (茨中) is unforgettable. From Deqin, the bus drives south on a half-paved half-dirt road suspended above the Mekong gorges. Beautiful scenery, scary ride. Isolated Tibetan hamlets are scattered in the middle of a tortuous entanglement of chiseled mountain ridges.
After the township of Yunling (云岭县), the road winds down deep in the valley and runs parallel to the Mekong River. In this part of Yunnan, the Mekong is called the “Lancang River” (澜沧江) which means “Blue Green Swelling Waters”, yet the brownish waters flow down impassibly towards the south.
At this latitude, three of Asia’s most important rivers flow in parallels, each separated by a mountain range. The Salween (怒江), the Mekong(澜沧江) in the middle and the Yangze River (长江). This region named the “Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan” (云南三江并流) is a UNESCO protected area.
From the Cizhong bridge, there is a short walk to get to the plateau where is located a cluster of hamlets in the middle of rice paddies and vineyards planted by French and Swiss missionaries more than one hundred years ago.
A church in Buddhist land
During the mid-nineteenth century a French missionary disguised as a Chinese merchant traveled on the Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道). He spent two years in the Dongzhulin (东竹林) monastery near Benzilan (奔子栏), half way between Zhongdian (中甸) and Deqin (德钦).
After having mastered Tibetan language he set out to build missions in northern Yunnan , on the border with Tibet. French and Swiss missionaries followed and settled in this remote region of Yunnan province. Their goal was to spread the Gospel, to learn Tibetan language and culture, to translate the Bible in Tibetan and to wait for the gates of the Himalayan Kingdom to open.
French and Swiss missionaries never went to Tibet which remained a forbidden Kingdom, closed to foreigners and their religion. Instead, they settled in Kham, this historical Tibetan region that spreads across northern Yunnan and southwestern Sichuan. They built churches in Batang, Litang, Yerkalo (now in Tibet, a few hours from Deqin), and in the Mekong and Salween valleys of northern Yunnan.
Expelled from China in the 1950s, the missionaries let behind a small but strong Catholic communities in remote regions of north Yunnan province.
A walk in the former apostolic district of Cizhong
Cizhong is home to a population of ethnic Lisu (傈僳族), Yi (彝族) and Tibetan (藏族), 80% of whom is Catholic. They all speak Tibetan, however nobody reads or write it. It seems that everyone lives in harmony. The remaining 20% of Tibetan Buddhist join the Catholic during their celebration of Christmas and vice-verse during the Tibetan new year.
The church is surrounded by vineyards planted by the missionaries 150 years ago. Each household owns a plot of the vineyard. Some villagers sell the grapes on the market of the nearby village of Badi, and other still make red wine following the techniques taught by the missionaries.
Built at the end of the nineteenth century, Cizhong church was destroyed during anti-christian violence in the region in the early 1900s. Some missionaries were killed and they still rest in peace in a graveyard that dominate the Mekong valley and located high in the mountains.
Cizhong church was rebuilt in 1911 and a Chinese-style pavilion-like structure was added on top of the bell tower later. In the 1950s, after the foreign missionaries were forced to leave China and that religion was banned, Cizhong church was transformed into a primary school.
Spared during the Cultural Revolution
Used as a school, Cizhong church was spared during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Wall frescoes that depicted scene of Jesus Christ’s life were erased by the Red Guards.
Fortunately, they spared non-religious decorations on the church’s arches and pillars which were painted during the reconstruction of the structure in 1911. These decorations are in bad shape, yet they show how local symbolism of the dragon, phoenix and lotus have merged with the Catholic church of Cizhong.
A priest-less mass
There are no priest in the valley. Actually,in Dali, there are only two or three priests who are in charge of an area the size of half the French territory.
Nonetheless, villagers gather religiously every Sunday for an improvised mass. Women sit on the left hand side and men on the right. They sing Catholic songs in Tibetan, like the missionaries taught their ancestors 100 years ago.
Before and after the mass, villagers gather in front of the church, in front of the building that used to be the living quarters of the missionaries. They will fight to have the honor to have you over for lunch and some of the elders who were taught by the French and Swiss missionaries have not forgotten their Latin.
Cizhong really comes down as one of the most memorable trip in Yunnan province. It embodies the province rich ethnic and cultural diversity surrounded a beautiful scenery.